"I wouldn't ask Gary Pritchard to captain Southern Star if he were the last skipper left alive in the Bahamas!"
Marilee Shaw rarely put herself in the position of having to eat her own words, but as she walked quickly along the dock to where Southern Star lay tied at anchor, the challenge she uttered earlier lingered in her ears as well as on her tongue. So much for rash promises.
"That sounds vaguely familiar, except this morning it was the entire world." Jane Owens, who owned a catering service that supplied food for local charters, and who at sixty had the energy of most women at forty-five, hurried to keep up with Marilee's long-legged stride. "Now that you've changed your mind, let's not quibble over geography."
As she neared the yacht she had recently inherited, Marilee slowed her pace. The largest and most luxurious of the two dozen craft berthed in the marina, the Star swayed gently atop the water's surface.
"I wish I could think of one good reason, even two bad ones, why he should agree to take Southern Star out on this cruise." Her gaze swept the fifty-two foot length of the yacht. With a sigh, she climbed the gangplank, a red and white For Sale sign in one hand and a roll of tape in the other. Although the Star was listed with three brokers, one at Harbour Island there on Eleuthera, and two in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, it paid to be practical.
"He loved you once," Jane said from the deck below. "Men don't forget those things, although they like to pretend they do."
"Whatever he felt, that was eight years ago. Men don't stay in love that long." All he was likely to remember was how much she’d hurt him. "He'll say 'no'."
After securing the sign to the forward window of the saloon, Marilee turned quickly and, with Jane, left the yacht and dock behind, heading for the nearby cinder block building that housed her late father's office for South Wind Charters. As she made her way across the asphalt roadway and down the cement sidewalk, a crisp Atlantic breeze, carrying the fresh, clean scent of salt air, riffled through her hair. The sun felt warm on her skin and she would have liked to enjoy it further, but enjoyment of any kind had been pushed to somewhere below "read everything by Shakespeare" on her list of priorities.
She pushed open the office door and went to the desk where piles of invoices, outdated correspondence, and an unhealthy preponderance of bills greeted her. Having sorted through all that paper for the past three weeks, she wanted to sweep it into the trash and return home to California.
"I need a miracle," she said. "Only something tells me that Gary will not be the knight who rides to my rescue."
"Then why are you going all the way down to Governor's Harbour when you already know his answer?" Mischief danced in the depths of Jane's dark eyes.
"Because I'm a masochist." Marilee sank into the ancient swivel chair. "Because I have this overpowering urge to have him slam the door in my face. Because I believe in living dangerously. Take your pick."
"I like the last," Jane said.
"Unfortunately, I have few options. This is simple economics. Either I honor the last commitment Dad left on the books, or the bank will repossess the Star." She stared at the invoice confirming a ten-day charter for Tom Wellman and a party of four. The very fact of the cruise seemed an answer to her prayers. How else could she make even one payment to the bank?
"Dad put his entire life into the Star," she continued. "Now he’s left her to me, every gleaming, mortgaged foot of her. They'll sell her at auction for a fraction of what she's worth. I can't let them do that."
"You've convinced me," Jane said, "and you'll convince Gary. I think it a good sign he's come back to Eleuthera after all those years he lived away. As if he knew you were going to need him."
"That's one way of looking at it." Marilee had already decided she needed a second miracle, finding a skipper. She stood and picked up her keys. "But I still wish there was another way. Any other way. Taming lions would have to be a picnic compared to coaxing Gary into this assignment."
She remembered their last meeting vividly. Hurt had burned in his eyes and it had taken her the better part of two years to stop hating herself for what she believed, at the time, was the right decision.
"Don't feel you have to be overly scrupulous." Jane, never one to keep good advice to herself, pressed each point home with emphasis. "Play on his sense of fairness. Your father helped Gary get started in this business, made it possible for him to buy his first yacht. Loyalty and obligation are sentiments he'll understand."
"I'll try." Marilee paused at the door. "But will they work when he knows I've got a fifty-two-foot white elephant on my hands?"
"Gary Pritchard was like a son to your father. You might want to remind him of that, too."
They stepped out into the bright sunshine. "This sounds like a pep rally. You know, one up for our side." She laughed, but it came out sounding forced.
After saying goodbye to Jane, she climbed into the Jeep and, as she turned the key, its engine sprang to life. She felt a moment's hesitation, but before she allowed herself to think of the consequences, swung the Jeep onto the road and headed south toward Governor's Harbour.
Her memory was good and the area she sought was not too difficult to find. Eleuthera Island, less than 100 miles long and under five miles wide in many places, could be covered in less than three hours. In the past, she had explored every inch of it with her father, but that had been only after her parents divorced and he moved from Florida to the Bahamas, where he thought business would be better. She drove past old homes, lying on either side of the hill, half secluded by tropical shrubs, tranquil and quiet. That day, however, she had no time to slow and admire their quaint beauty. Then she was past the few shops, the supermarket, the bank, the church she had once attended and over the ridge where the road ran toward sandy beaches.
An hour later, she recognized Gary's house from Jane's brief description. She climbed out of the Jeep and walked slowly up the flagstone path. All smoked glass and wood and vaulted roof, the house was bordered on three sides by immaculately kept emerald lawns. Just beyond, across an expanse of pink sand dotted with lush green palms, the ocean rushed at the shore. In a swirl of sparkling turquoise, it inched up onto the beach only to be swept back out to sea. Almost mesmerized by the motion of the water, ebbing and flowing, rising on a high, sweet crest, only to crash and slip away, she realized her relationship with Gary had been like that.
If it was possible to love a man too much, to become totally captivated by the sight and sound of him, then that was how she had loved Gary Pritchard. But what she had felt for him in the beginning had become, at the end, too strong, too consuming, so that when he asked her to marry him, she knew without a moment's doubt that she could never share him with his mistress, the sea. She could never have become a part-time fixture in his life. Like her mother had been in her father's.
She pushed the bell. A chime sounded somewhere in the interior of the house, soft and muted. It died, and she waited, finally deciding, almost with a sense of relief, that no one was home. Before she had a chance to consider what plan to adopt next--leaving a note was out of the question--something furry brushed against her. With a small gasp, she looked down to find a fat orange and white striped cat looking up at her.
"Where did you come from?" she said aloud.
The cat examined Marilee, then strolled languorously to the door, where it stretched its front paws against the polished mahogany.
Surprised to find so tame an animal on the premises--a pair of Great Danes would have seemed more appropriate for the Gary Pritchard she remembered--Marilee said, "Don't tell me you belong here!"
"He doesn't. I gave him a hand-out once or twice and I haven't been able to get rid of him since. I call him Cat." The voice that came from directly behind Marilee was low and husky, familiar, and intensely masculine, like its owner. She straightened up and turned in that direction.
Except for the deeper lines etched into his brow and along the sides of his mouth, he had, in her view, changed very little. At thirty-two, he was still slim where it counted, the muscles finely toned in his long legs and upper arms. Dark hair fell carelessly in thick waves to frame his face, and his blue eyes were exactly as she remembered them, alive with a curiosity and zest for living that had once made him the most exciting man she had ever met.
"Hello, Gary." Her heartbeat shifted into high gear. She took a series of deep breaths. In, out, in, out, like a do-it-yourself mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
He took a half step toward her, then drew back. "Well." He sounded uncertain, which heightened Marilee's own nervousness.
"How are you, Gary?" There, she had managed to say his name twice without sounding like a breathy ingenue.
"Right this minute, surprised would be an understatement." After a moment, the uncertainty disappeared from his voice. "You look wonderful, Lee."
"You look well, too." It was her turn to understate. Dressed in denim cut-offs and navy blue tank top, he looked as vital, tanned and handsome as ever.
"I had no idea you were here on Eleuthera." A tiny smile flirted with the corners of his lips.
"I'm on temporary leave from my job." The cat brushed against Marilee, then leaped to its adopted owner, rubbing against his legs.
"Computers, isn't it?"
"Yes." Had her father told him that? Or had he asked about her? She wondered what else he knew of her life. "I'm with Visions Unlimited. I help businesses develop networking systems, use new software."
"You're a teacher. That's a good career for you, Lee."
"What makes you say that?" She laughed. "Have you pictured me as some outdated stereotype of a teacher, in stout shoes and frumpy dress, my hair pulled into a bun?"
"Hardly. And it would be a shame to hide that hair." His smile softened his rugged features. "But it's conservative, and predictable."
"Not the kind of work I do." She felt an urge to defend herself. "My territory takes in three states. I could be in San Diego one day and Seattle the next. There are times I have to catch a flight on less than four hours' notice. It's hectic, but it is not predictable."
"I'm glad." He smiled more broadly this time. "You've changed, then. That's good."
Oh, he was going to make this very difficult. Why had she allowed herself to hope otherwise? "I have less than a month left to sort out Dad's affairs. The business is in terrible shape. I... I suppose you heard."
He nodded, genuine sorrow flicking to the surface of his eyes. "I'm sorry, Lee. He was a good friend--the best--and I'll miss him. I was in Miami when he died. I didn't find out about it until last week."
He pushed open the door and reached toward her.
Her first instinct was to back away, but before she could act on the impulse, his long fingers brushed her arm. With the slightest pressure he guided her into the cool interior of the house.
"I appreciate your driving all this way to tell me."
Guilt washed over her momentarily, and she followed him into a large living room, but its simple beauty failed to register on her. Rattan chairs, glass topped tables, recessed lighting, woven straw rug, made only fleeting impressions. Her conscious mind was filled with the man, not his surroundings, and also of the fact that she was disturbed he could still have such an effect on her. On the drive down to his house, she felt convinced she had made peace with herself over Gary. Now, she wasn't so sure.
"Can I get you something? Club soda or coffee? I'm afraid that's all I can offer you just now."
She shook her head. How could she admit she had come, not to share her grief with him, but to offer him a proposition, yacht owner to yacht owner: that she had, in essence, materialized on his doorstep to offer him a job? "Gary... I..." She turned toward the tall sheets of glass that formed the side wall of the room. "I like your view." She wished again that she didn't need his help.
"I like the one I’m looking at." He came up behind her, and she felt vulnerable again, wished she hadn't come rushing down there wearing her yellow terry cloth shorts and top, as if she were still eighteen. Brief hot-weather clothes were usually all she had ever worn when she visited her father there. But now, at twenty-six, their encounter was to be strictly business. Had to be. But, with the mere sight of him warming her face and turning her hands clammy, surely that was merely wishful thinking.